Filling In New Orleans' Future, One Blank At A Time New Orleans residents are using to post ideas for improving their neighborhoods. Initially a local public street art project, Neighborland tries to democratize city development by creating instant civic feedback. But the digital divide has left the city's computer illiterate out of the conversation.

Filling In New Orleans' Future, One Blank At A Time

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


I'm Robert Siegel. And today we begin the NPR Cities Project.

BLOCK: By 2050, it's projected that 70 percent of the people around the world will live in urban places. In the United States, more than 70 percent of us already live in cities - big, small or in their suburbs. In fact, this is being described as the urban century.

SIEGEL: In the coming weeks, we're going to consider how we want to live in the urban century, from inner cities, to downtowns, to the edges of metro areas, we'll hear about the complexities of city life and how people are re-envisioning the urban experience. And we start today in New Orleans. NPR's Debbie Elliot is there to kick off our series. Hi, Debbie.


SIEGEL: And first, tell us why New Orleans.

ELLIOT: Well, you know, after Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005, this city really became a blank slate. And in the years that followed, there have just been all these entrepreneurs coming here to sort of think about how the city operates, how to reinvent itself. It's really became a hotbed of entrepreneurship.

SIEGEL: And you are there to tell us about a project that's part of an effort to, as I understand it, democratize what shows up in our communities.

ELLIOT: Right. It's a social media tool. It's called Neighborland and it's a lot like Twitter. You go to this site and you pick out your neighborhood and there's a conversation going on and you join in the conversation. The posts will all start with I Want and you fill in the blank and you say what your idea is for your neighborhood. And one of the top ideas here is getting a streetcar line through downtown, an idea first proposed on Neighborland by Jasmine Fournier, a young health care worker.

JASMINE FOURNIER: We are at Dawson and Canal Street waiting for the streetcar and it's on its way.

ELLIOT: Fournier has a new house on St. Claude Avenue downtown. The city has federal funds to add a new streetcar line on the avenue, but Fournier wants to see it extended further. She thinks it will help her block feel more connected.

FOURNIER: The street, it's not something that someone driving down really fast could get through. It's a place where people are stopping. And that's how you have a neighborhood, it's like people stop.

ELLIOT: Fournier likes Neighborland because it allows her to be an advocate without attending endless meetings or otherwise disrupting her busy life. And that's exactly how the site's co-founder, Candy Chang, envisioned it - a tool for those who don't have the loudest voice or the time to show up at city hall. As we walked to a corner cafe on St. Claude, Chang describes what got her thinking about how neighbors connect.

CANDY CHANG: I feel like there's more and more tools to reach out across the world. But it's still hard to reach out to your entire neighborhood.

ELLIOT: Chang is an artist and urban designer. Neighborland grew out of one of her public street art projects.

CHANG: What if it was easier for us to say what we want, where we want it? So I made these stickers, these fill-in-the-blank stickers that say, I wish this was - blank.

ELLIOT: They look like those generic name tags that say, hello, my name is Debbie. She posted the stickers on empty storefronts around New Orleans.

CHANG: People wanted a bakery, a nursery, a taco stand, a place to sit and talk. I really like how in this little small space, the responses range from, like, the functional to the really poetic, to - people said I wish this was heaven, Brad Pitt's house.

ELLIOT: One of the most popular posts in her neighborhood, the Bywater, both on stickers and online, is I wish this was a grocery store. Chang says the lone supermarket pre-Katrina hasn't reopened, so a Mardi Gras party store helped fill the void, along with Mr. Okra, the local produce vendor.

CHANG: I'll hear his voice.

MR. OKRA: I've got the mango.

CHANG: I've got bananas.

OKRA: I have (unintelligible).

CHANG: It's like, oh, my god, Mr. Okra. You run out like he's the ice cream man.

ELLIOT: Mr. Okra, pastel-painted shotgun houses, and streetcars are just some of the hallmarks of New Orleans, a city still reinventing itself in the wake of Katrina. Neighborland is one of dozens of entrepreneurial endeavors that have sprung up in the recovery. To find out if local officials are paying attention, I go to city hall, where Councilwoman Kristin Gisleson Palmer says Neighborland's timing is good.

KRISTEN GISLESON PALMER: You know, after the storm, you fight so hard for, you know, what is that sense of community, and that discussion of neighborhood and planning, and what's really important to you. And I think Neighborland kind of reflects that. You literally are putting your stamp on it.

ELLIOT: But so far, only a few hundred residents are using Neighborland, and it's hard to gauge yet what impact, if any, they've had in the project's first year. The bottom-up, democratic nature of Neighborland is not an easy sell when it comes to developers, driven more by market forecasts than citizen whims. One exception is Wisznia Architecture and Development, a firm has turned a long-abandoned office building on Saratoga into apartments on a corner near city hall, the public library and a very busy bus stop.

A sign on the building's ground floor asks, what businesses do you want here, and gives a number to text in answers. Wisznia architect Dan Weiner says they've received dozens of suggestions that were practical.

DANIEL WEINER: And it has actually helped us form ideas on how these spaces can be put into commerce and make sense not just from the developers' standpoint, but from the community's standpoint.

ELLIOT: Here are some ideas I heard down at the bus stop.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: I think most importantly, they needed some type of activity center down here.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Hell, maybe they should open up an arcade. They don't have any of those around anymore. That way, maybe I could go in and play a game or two while I wait for the bus.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Restaurant.

ELLIOT: Maintenance worker, Michael Ray, is waiting for the Algiers loop bus to take him home.

MICHAEL RAY: They could put a liquor store in there. Yeah, somewhere I could buy a cold beer 'cause I'm here every day.

ELLIOT: Ray likes the idea of having a say in local development, but like a significant part of New Orleans's population, he's not really engaged in social media.

RAY: I'm computer illiterate. That's some of us in the world, you know.

ELLIOT: So you don't have a computer. Now, do you have a cell phone?

RAY: Yeah, I have a cell phone. I don't do texting, though.

ELLIOT: Early on, Neighborland's users appear to be mostly white, educated, middle-class professionals, people like Jasmine Fournier, who have flocked to the city to be a part of the new entrepreneurial vibe here post-Katrina. From the front stoop of her double-shotgun house on St. Claude, you can see the signs of long-term neglect on the block - dilapidated storefronts and a few small businesses, like the payday loan shop a few doors down.

Getting a new streetcar, she believes, can start to change that.

FOURNIER: I'm here to watch the neighborhood come back and watch the check place turn into maybe a grocery store or something that would be useful for people around here.

ELLIOT: Jasmine Fournier hopes the St. Claude streetcar line will soon be stopping on her block. On the corner of St. Claude and Frenchmen in New Orleans, Debbie Elliot for the NPR Cities Project.

SIEGEL: As of today, is open for input from more than 20 cities so that people can suggest what they want where they live.

Copyright © 2012 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.